Michelle Obama's New Gun Violence Project Is Unusual for a First Lady

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Michelle Obama is taking a break from getting our kids moving to focus on gun violence. It's a shift from something fairly non-controversial—everyone agrees childhood obesity is bad, right?—to a topic slightly more serious than what past first ladies have taken up. The Associated Press reports that she's combining gun violence with her overall efforts to help kids focus on completing their educations. After meeting with students at Chicago's Harper High School, where several students and alumni have been victims of gun violence, Obama told attendees at a fundraiser that Harper students were more focused on staying alive than finishing school. 

Obama, who once said that being first lady has "prison-like elements," is taking a step out of her comfort zone. After years of recovering from PR stumbles early in her husband's first campaign, she's potentially putting herself back in the line of fire. Gun violence as a pet project is also a new concept for first ladies in general. Past first ladies have taken on initiatives that fulfill a certain feminine and maternal ideal. Yes, Obama's childhood obesity campaign isn't without its detractors. Rush Limbaugh claims her school lunch menu is starving children and he, along with a few other rotund conservatives, think it's hilarious to call the first lady fat. But, the core issue—encouraging kids to exercise and not develop high blood pressure before puberty—involves taking care of children. First ladies are expected to take on causes, but only causes appropriate for a lady. Looking back at the pet causes of some of our most recent first ladies, gun control is pretty wild:

  • Laura Welch Bush  focused on global literacy and launched "Ready to Read, Ready to Learn," which focused on highlighting educational best practices. Like obesity, illiterate children are people most people would want to help.
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton, the only first lady with a political career to rival her husband's, got some flack for running a health care task force, but she also wrote It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, which is a lot more socially acceptable but somehow less Hillary. Former Sen. Rick Santorum had a few things to say about Clinton's liberal view on family life.
  • Nancy Davis Reagan taught us all to "just say no" to drugs. Despite the slow legalization of marijuana, we'd say doing drugs in public is still pretty frowned upon. 
  • Barbara Pierce Bush once said, "[i]f more people could read, write, and comprehend, we could be much closer to solving so many of the other problems our country faces today." Agreed.
  • Lady Bird Johnson helped make our highways a little less ugly by promoting Highway Beautification Act.

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These are all wonderful, worthwhile causes. Well, we can think of a few things more worthwhile than pretty freeways, but most first lady initiatives are good, solid causes. But if a Harvard- (Obama) or Yale- (Clinton) educated lawyer wants to focus on a cause with a bit of grit to it, why not? Obama may upset the gun lobby, but seeing as she's the same first lady who was criticized for attending the Oscars and for daring to address a heckler—and that's just this year—criticism is nothing new. The only person who can really get upset is Ellen Degeneres, who probably won't get a push-up rematch:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.